The Story

by Kass

Written for Chanukah 5773 / 2012.

"Captain? A word?" the Shepherd says, and Mal pauses on his way to the bridge.

Shepherd Book seems to be choosing his words carefully. "I recognize your allergy to religion."

"That's one way to put it," Mal agrees.

"But would you object if I held a service on Christmas Eve?"

The request surprises him, though he's not sure why it should. "Object?" Mal shrugs. "What you do on your own time is your own business."

"So you wouldn't have a problem with my holding Christmas services on your ship."

"Wouldn't expect too many people to come," Mal cautions him. "This ain't exactly the godliest of crews."

Shepherd Book's smile is wry. "Doesn't rightly matter. I've observed Christmas all by my ownself before. I can do it again, if need be."

He shouldn't ask, but his curiosity gets the better of him. "Then why bother with a service?"

"It matters to me that I tell the story," the shepherd says quietly. "Whether or not anyone's listening is another matter entirely."

"Suit yourself," Mal says, and turns to walk away.

"I imagine Kaylee'll come," the Shepherd says, and Mal pauses. He's probably right, at that. It's all too easy to imagine Kaylee decked out in one of her worn flowered dresses, like she was going to church back on her home planet with her mama.

Mal does his best to quash his own memories of doing the same damn thing. Though without the flowered dress. "She might," he acknowledges.

"And Inara," Book adds.

"Pretty sure she's a Buddhist," Mal argues.

"Buddhists can enjoy a good story," says the shepherd. He's enjoying this verbal back-and-forth, Mal can tell. Funny thing is, Mal's enjoying it, too.

"And a Companion," Mal reminds him.

"As though I could forget. You know, Captain, Jesus consorted with Companions, too."

That reminder gives him all kinds of prickly feelings down his spine which he'd rather not consider. "I'd best be getting to the bridge," Mal prevaricates, trying to ignore the sense that he's running away, and he turns to go.

"Jayne, now, I'm not certain," says the shepherd to his back, and against his better judgement Mal stops again and turns back around.

"If Kaylee's there, Jayne'll come," Mal admits. "He ain't religious, but I'd be surprised if he didn't show."

"What about the Tams?" Book asks.

"It's all metaphor," says River, who has somehow managed to slink up behind Mal without either one of them noticing.

Mal tries not to flinch. She makes him more'n a little edgy, even without the crazy talk.

"All metaphor," she repeats, "and your book is broken, but everyone needs light in the darkness. 'Specially out here in the black."

"Whatever you say," Mal says, raising his hands to placate her, and she rolls her eyes at him and moves on.

"Do what you want," Mal says to Book with as much finality as he can muster. "I've got work to do."

He's almost to the bridge when the shepherd calls after him. "You're welcome too, you know."

"Got a lot of nerve, welcoming me onto my own ship," Mal mutters as he moves through the door.

"Excuse me?" says Wash, looking concerned. "Was that directed at me?"

"Can't say that it was," Mal acknowledges. He takes a deep breath and lets it out. On the bridge everything feels the way it ought to. Stars outside, dinosaurs arranged in whatever bizarre patterns Wash seems to require, all the blinking lights and subtle hums of his ship exactly right.

There's a pause. But the shepherd's done something to his brain, and Mal's stuck thinking about religion.

"You and Zoe ever go to church?" he asks.

Wash looks startled. "You mean, with the -- preaching, and the singing, and all that?"

"Ridiculous question, nevermind." Mal isn't sure why he even asked.

"On the rare occasions we're planetside on a Sunday morning," Wash begins, and then cracks a grin. "I admit I'm likelier to worship at the altar of my lovely wife."

"That," Mal says, gesturing as though to ward off the mental image, "is more than I needed to know!"

"What's that, Captain?" Zoe asks, stepping onto the bridge.

"Sugar pie," Wash says, his eyes lighting up. "I was just telling the Captain--"

"I'll be going," Mal says hastily, standing up and gesturing toward the door. "You two carry on."

"Will do, sir," Zoe says, obviously amused.

Maybe he'll go find the shepherd again. Few questions he wouldn't mind asking, now that he thinks on it. Before the holiday rolls around.